(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a ghazal, an Arab poem form of couplets with repeated last lines, into which I tried to incorporate this interesting title.)
They thought they knew what to expect, until they were eleven.
The number of chosen elect jumped from ten to eleven.
This wasn’t the plan; they were told there were ten in the test,
Until it began to unfold, and they counted eleven.
Though tempted to end it because of the unwanted guest,
This crucial attempt at advancing meant all to eleven.
No danger, no drawback would ruin their chance to be best;
Game-changers, they saw, could distinguish the ten or eleven.
The challenge was simple: survive as a team coalesced,
But must the plans alter when ten are progressed to eleven?
MPAA rating: Not Rated (should be PG, due to a little brief nudity)
In seeking out hidden gems among anime, one need not focus on current releases, since there are plenty of older films worthy of greater recognition. Based on a 1975 manga, They Were Eleven feels very much like a classic, not just classic anime but classic science fiction, the kind of story that feels like an influence on sci-fi to come. Ten finalists of what is basically Starfleet Academy have one final test to gain entrance: a team exercise where they must survive together on a derelict ship for 53 days. The only hitch is that once the random candidates gather on the ship, they discover there’s an eleventh member, and no one knows who the extra is or what their intentions are.
With a plot that recalls Star Trek: The Next Generation and Ender’s Game and may or may not have inspired elements of them, the film does an excellent job balancing its diverse cast. This kind of ensemble in animation is rare, but the varied character designs help to differentiate the cadets on board, who include a king, a cyborg, two alien species, an apparent girl named Frol who insists she’s a man, and a young psychic named Tada, who serves as the main protagonist. All of them have different reasons for wanting to attend the academy, and their personalities often clash as they encounter obstacles, dangers, paranoia, and sabotage.
Except for a few explosive scenes, there’s nothing particularly special about the animation; it’s solid, and serves the story well enough, as does the English dub, which only feels notable because it features Steve Blum and Wendee Lee before they were paired again in the excellent Cowboy Bebop dub. They Were Eleven is a consistently interesting mystery, and while the ending isn’t exactly a big shock, it explores its sci-fi themes with intelligence, particularly Frol’s side plot that manages to both challenge and embrace traditional gender roles. It may not be well-known, but They Were Eleven deserves to be.
Rank: List Runner-Up
2017 S.G. Liput
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